Checking in on the Presidential Innovation Fellows: Can you mandate innovation?
Back in August, U. S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park unveiled the inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellows. These eighteen individuals (16 men and two women) were culled from the private sector and given the mission to work on five specific projects over a six- to twelve-month period. The main idea behind the initiative: When a person sitting at their desk has a spark of genius, there should be resources in place to kindle that fire and help it grow.
A lot has been written about these projects already, so I won't go into much detail about them. But I think that since we're a few months in, we can start to examine how the projects were chosen, and what it says about managing software innovation in a mature organization (a description I still apply to the U.S., even after having been subjected to a large amount of campaign propaganda in the most recent election).
I suggest that when you kick off a project by "putting your best innovators on it" and holding public meetings (press conferences in the White House's case) you are implicitly removing one of the key ingredients of an innovation strategy: the potential for failure.
It's the ability to take risks, to chase big ideas and to chance failure that leads to true innovation. Do you think that the inaugural projects will be this bold after they have been ballyhooed in the press? Or is it more likely that they will set more modest goals and compromise their vision to guarantee they deliver something of marginal value? Check the progress pages and Twitter streams of the initial projects, and judge for yourself.
Park has explained that the five projects were not envisioned from outside the government, but from internal agencies -- agencies that brought their best ideas to the table and then voted to select the five winners. In a climate where large corporations are seen as dinosaurs compared to small and agile startups, this approach to innovation deserves some scrutiny. We must ask the fundamental question: Can a large organization self-identify opportunities for radical change, or is this a task better left to outsiders?
On the one hand, perhaps no one understands an organization's problems as well as those who deal with them every day. On the other hand, although people may recognize opportunity, all too often they are not empowered to take action on it. As a contractor to several prominent government agencies early in my career, I experienced this situation firsthand. The silos of government are very old and established, and breaking them down -- especially from the bottom up -- is almost impossible.
One might assume that having executive sponsorship -- in this case the U. S. CTO -- and internal cooperation from the agencies would break down some of these barriers. However, I would still suggest that the program suffers an inherent design flaw that will dilute its value.
That doesn't mean innovation has to happen in secret, especially where government is concerned. For example, the Sunlight Foundation has been doing a fantastic job at making the colossal amount of data the U.S. generates open and accessible. Such a good job, in fact, that one wonders why one of the Presidential Fellows programs is labeled "Open Data Initiatives." A non-government, non-profit organization, the Sunlight Foundation also dispels the notion that you have to be "in the system" to "fix the system."
Let's go back to the start of the US Innovation program and see how it could have better fostered innovation. What I find interesting is that Park has said the agencies collected ideas, which they then submitted to vote. Presumably there were no prototypes at this event and no code -- just PowerPoint. That's a problem. The senior leadership at these agencies shouldn't have waited for the "Start to Innovate!" alarm to sound; they should have been actively fostering internal sessions that put creative people together and gave them the resources and support to implement. These agencies are also smaller than the collective government and therefore more nimble.
Corporations must not fall into the same trap as the White House. Ideation campaigns are acceptable -- but innovation doesn't happen on a schedule. Don't let the potential benefits of an idea get ahead of the actual implementation, or you may think yourself into a corner and be unable to throw a mediocre idea away or pivot into something more useful because of public pressure. And don't be afraid to fail. The sooner you do, the sooner you'll be able to start working on the next great idea.
This was first published in November 2012